The nature of improvement

The nature of improvement

Oct 7, 2014, 6:38 PM |

It is not uncommon in the forums to see threads with titles like "How can I improve?", "Why can't I improve?" and "I'm quitting chess because I can't improve!".

And, just recently, a new friend of mine said,  "I wish someone could just sit me down and show me how to think in chess.".

After hearing this statement, it occurred to me that many of those who are new to chess may have some incorrect ideas about how improvemen in chess is made. 

Today I will share some ideas about improving at chess. These are not ideas specifically about improving. But, rather, HOW to approach improving at chess.

I've been teaching English in Thailand for 10 years now. Mostly I teach kids in primary and secondary school. 

I've seen quite often how parents or students become frustrated because of the student's perceived lack of progress in English. After hearing these concerns for so long, I started to realize they had the wrong idea about how English is learned and what it takes to improve.

Improving at English, or any second language, and improving at chess are the same in that they are not a step-by-step process like learning most other things such as maths, car repair or making balloon animals.

Most things we learn come in steps. You learn step 1, then step 2 and on and on until all the steps are completed and you have a new skill. For example, in maths, you start with learning the numbers, then you learn to count, then you learn to add single digit numbers, then add double digit numbers then multiplication, division and so forth until you are able to do complex math.

Chess, like English, cannot be learned this way. No, these things have to be learned with what I call a holistic approach. Meaning, they cannot be effectively learned and applied in parts, but rather as a whole where all the parts you learn require other parts to be learned before they become useful.

For example, lets say you read the chapter from My System about controlling open files. And, afterwards, you make an effort to remember what you learned when you see an open file.

How much is this single piece of information going to improve your overall game?

Well, considering all the things like this there are to know, and the fact that this knowlege is not going to be applied to every game, learning this one piece of information is not going to improve your overall game to any noticable degree.

In order for this one piece of knowlege to help improve your game, you have to learn many other parts that can be used in conjunction with this knowledge to create a complete path to noticable improvement.

Now, with this in mind, it should become clear that studying chess can require a fair amount of time before the student begins to see a real improvement in their game.

I've seen discussions in the forums about how long it takes to become a master. An often quoted number is 10,000 hours. Now, this may or may not be accurate, but it is without a doubt a good indication of the time it takes to master chess. And this is not just time playing chess. But time spent studying games, analyzing games and reading books.

So, you can see reality reflects expectation.

Here are a few things to think about next time you are feeling frustrated because of your perceived lack of progress at chess:

1. You must make an intentional effort to improve at chess. There are many ways to do this such as analyzing games, practicing tactics and reading books. Just playing chess is not enough to continue improving.

2. Noticable improvement takes time. It is going to take time for your mind to consume and learn how to use what you have learned.

3. It is common to see a drop in your rating after learning new material. This is because you need time to practice what you have learned before it becomes useful.

4. Improvement often comes in breakthroughs. This is a point in your consumption of chess knowledge that it begins to make sense and becomes useful to you.

5. Anytime you are feeling discouraged, there are plenty of great people in the forums who will be happy to give you some encouragement. 

I hope this blog post helps you in your chess improvement. Please feel free to leave any feedback below.